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Nurse Ratched before 'Ratched': Revisiting 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest'

As Ryan Murphy's 'Ratched' supplies the origin story of one of cinema’s greatest villains, we revisit the first screen version of Nurse Ratched

Louise Fletcher and (right) Sarah Paulson play Nurse Ratched in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' and 'Ratched' respectively
Louise Fletcher and (right) Sarah Paulson play Nurse Ratched in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' and 'Ratched' respectively

Our first glimpse of Nurse Ratched comes less than a minute into One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Miloš Forman’s classic 1975 adaptation of Ken Kesey’s equally celebrated 1962 novel. As the mental health facility she presides over starts another day, she walks down the hall towards the camera. She’s dressed in funeral black. Forman places a large red light bang in the viewer’s eyeline. It’s as clear a warning as her hair, curling upward from a middle parting like horns.

At first, Ratched, played by Louise Fletcher, seems like a calm, involved nurse, but we realize that’s because everyone listens to what she says. But when McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson, is admitted to the facility, he starts pushing her buttons. And Ratched gets scary very quickly after that. Her voice never rises or falls, it is instead dispassionate and hard as a diamond. Her face is like a mask; when she’s displeased, it seems to vibrate. Fletcher matches Kesey’s description of Ratched: “Her face is smooth, calculated, and precision-made, like an expensive baby doll, skin like flesh-colored enamel, blend of white and cream and baby-blue eyes, small nose, pink little nostrils…"

Nurse Ratched is a great villain because we don’t quite know for sure if she thinks she’s a force for good. “I think we can help him," she says when management is debating whether to let McMurphy go. Does she actually think she can, or does she want to win, to reduce the only voice of rebellion to mute acquiescence?

As McMurphy’s hold over the other patients grows stronger, we see Ratched become more manipulative, hitting each one in their most vulnerable area. Each meeting with the patients is a battle of wills and an escalation of what she'll do in order to keep her hospital running the way it always has. The strain on her mask-like face when she's trying to control her anger is terrifying, like in the scene when Cheswick demands his cigarettes. It culminates in the horrific suicide of Billy at the end, after her mention of his mother drives the nervous young man over the edge.

Fletcher’s portrayal of Ratched won her the Academy Award for Best Actress. Fifth on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years... 100 Heroes & Villains" list, Nurse Ratched is the second-greatest villainess (after the Wicked Witch from The Wizard Of Oz). It’s an intimidating character to reinvent, but that’s what Ratched, now streaming on Netflix, attempts to do. It's the latest lurid attraction from Ryan Murphy, who created it along with Evan Romansky. Sarah Paulson, who collaborated with Murphy on American Horror Story and The People vs. O.J. Simpson, plays a younger version of Ratched.

Ratched is immediately recognizable as a Murphy production: a mix of eye-popping period detail, baroque drama and psychological horror. In 1946, about 20 years before the events of the book, Mildred—not yet a nurse—gets a job at a California psychiatric hospital where dangerous experiments are said to be taking place. The series tracks her journey to becoming the all-powerful nurse (Paulson said in an interview that they have planned a multi-season arc, and should ideally be in the book’s timeline by the fourth season).

At a time when networks and movie studios can't seem to get enough of reboots and remakes, Ratched joins a growing number of shows that present an unformed version of a familiar character. Better Call Saul, presumably, ends with Saul Goodman at the start of Breaking Bad. Perry Mason's first season was spent showing how the character became a lawyer. The closest parallel to Ratched, though, might be Bates Motel, which tracked the twisted relationship of Norman Bates and his mother before and during the events of Psycho.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest won five Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay and acting honours for Nicholson and Fletcher. It's one of the great films from a remarkably rich period for American cinema, one in which the state was the enemy and all institutions came under scrutiny. Part of the uncanny sense of madness in the film might have been Czech émigré Forman bringing his experience of state censorship to bear on the mental asylum. With Ratched now streaming, and most of humanity under house arrest dealing with an uncertain future, there could not be a better time to rewatch Forman’s film.

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